In 1996, the city of Missoula, Montana was facing a crisis.
For over a century, Missoula had been home to a thriving lumber industry. Work was plentiful, and aspiring foresters came to Missoula from across the country. Its population grew rapidly; before long, it was the second most populated city in Montana.
But in the 1990s, Missoula changed. The lumber industry, after a decade in decline, finally collapsed. Jobs dried up and prosperity went with them. Within a couple years, more than 20% of Missoulians were living in poverty. They had no work, no prospects –– and, when the government cut funding for food stamps in 1995, Missoula’s residents realized that they may soon have no food.
Josh Slotnick, a local farmer and aspiring teacher, thought he saw a solution. He reached out to the University of Montana and proposed a bold idea: large-scale community gardening, plus hands-on education to teach people how to grow their own food.
“I believed then,” Josh says, “that if we grew beautiful food, and I passed on little nuggets of wisdom around how to grow food, that this thing would be successful.”
Building a Garden City
Josh called his project Garden City Harvest. He started small –– two acres of farmland used to teach people how to grow crops, plus a community garden in the heart of town that anyone could join.
Garden City Harvest offered fresh produce to the community at affordable prices, taught Missoula residents to grow their own food, and donated a large percentage of vegetables to the local food bank, so those struggling with food security would have good, real food to eat.
That was 25 years ago. Today Garden City Harvest is, by all accounts, an extraordinary success.
It runs four large farms in Missoula proper and more than 20 community gardens across the city, and it donates more than 100,000 pounds of produce to Missoula food banks every year.
But GCH has turned into something greater than a local farming cooperative. It’s become a pillar of the community.
GCH works with almost every elementary school in Missoula, teaching children how to grow their own food. It delivers food to the elderly, giving them fresh produce and fostering connection between the older generations and the younger ones.
GCH even has an agreement with the local courts system –– they take in at-risk youth off the street and give them a sense of purpose, an education in farming, and a loving, tight-knit community in which they can thrive.
More Than Just Farming
Over the years, Garden City Harvest has uncovered a truth that Josh didn’t expect.
“It’s not about the food,” he says. At first, it’s not clear what he means.
Jean Zosel, Garden City Harvest’s executive director, offers a similar sentiment. She’s thoughtful and sincere, with the quiet charisma of somebody who finds deep purpose in their work. When I ask her what the best part of her job is, she tells me to wait a moment and goes looking for a folder.
“Here we go,” she says. She begins reading a message sent to her by a GCH member.
“‘My husband and I got married last August,’” the message says. “‘Due to COVID, we didn’t have family here for our two-person wedding.
“‘The week after our wedding, I was at the garden and shared our news with a fellow gardener. He gave us his first tomato of the season as a wedding present. So sweet.
“‘We’re also relatively new to Missoula and were just beginning to meet more people when the pandemic hit. The garden has been such a nice place to say hello to friendly faces and feel a sense of community. Growing alongside other humans is a total gift.’”
Over the course of our conversation, Jean shares several other stories with me.
She talks about a young woman who delivered vegetables to seniors. The young woman had purple hair and piercings, and at first she was worried about what the seniors might think of her appearance.
But instead of judgment, she found unexpected warmth. The seniors looked forward to seeing her each week, purple hair and all. They would talk for a few minutes each week, and over time, they developed surprisingly deep (and perhaps unlikely) friendships.
He’d been abandoned when he was 12 and, with nobody to help him, his life had begun to go down a dark and desperate road. He was arrested, and the courts offered him a choice: he could go to juvenile detention, or he could learn to work on a farm.
He chose the farm. He struggled at first –– both physically and emotionally –– but after a few months, he found strength in the community and purpose in his work.
One day when he was selling produce, he saw a familiar face: a man whose property he had defaced a few years earlier. When they recognized each other, the boy walked up to the man, shook his hand, and apologized. The man smiled, accepted the apology, and said he was happy to see the boy doing well.
Today, that boy is 24 years old. He has an apartment, a good job, a tight-knit circle of friends he made on the farm, and –– Jean smiles when she tells me this –– a 401(k).
When Josh and Jean say “It’s not about the food,” this is what they mean.
The food is important, without a doubt. Every year, GCH ensures that Missoula’s at-risk residents can afford to feed themselves and their children.
But there’s a deeper value to Garden City Harvest. In a time when community –– real, meaningful community –– is increasingly rare, GCH has brought thousands of Missoulians together. Through local gardening and farming education, they’ve fostered connections between young and old, homeless and affluent, farmers and restaurants, students and locals. Their humble community gardens have changed the very landscape of Missoula, both physically and communally.
Garden City Harvest is an extraordinary organization, and we want to see them continue to grow. That’s why we’ll donate $5 to Garden City Harvest for every purchase in the Orbit Store during September.
Perhaps you’ll consider starting a garden of your own, or maybe you’ll join a local community garden. You never know where it might take you.
Do you have a local gardening or nature-based success story you want to share with us? Tell us about it in the comments below; we’d love to feature it here on the Orbit blog.